KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 12 — Malaysia and over 120 other countries bought rigged encryption devices from a Swiss company secretly controlled by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and which allowed the spy outfit to listen in on their communications.
According to the Washington Post, the devices were ostensibly designed to hide the communications of a country’s espionage and diplomatic corps as well as government officials from the prying eyes of other nations, but secretly compromised to let the CIA easily decipher such material.
Building off its reputation as the firm behind code-making devices for the US troops in the Second World War, Crypto AG became the go-to company for encryption devices that countries trusted to keep their lines of communication secure.
The firm made its fortune selling the devices all over the world including to Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Vietnam in the region.
Singapore, a prominent US ally, was notably not a customer of Crypto AG, nor were any of the US’ main intelligence partners in the Five Eyes.
The existence of the operation — first codenamed “Thesaurus” and later renamed “Rubicon” — was exposed after the Washington Post obtained a classified report of the spy agency’s history that reportedly gloated about the exploit.
“It was the intelligence coup of the century,” according to an excerpt of the report.
“Foreign governments were paying good money to the US and West Germany for the privilege of having their most secret communications read by at least two (and possibly as many as five or six) foreign countries.”
The account was independently corroborated by former employees of Crypto AG in recent interviews.
According to the report, the CIA and another US intelligence outfit, the National Security Agency (NSA), began co-operating on Crypto AG in the 1970s and controlled nearly every aspect of the firm.
Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND) was an early partner in the programme but sold off its interest to the CIA in the 1990s after the former became unsettled by the risks of exposure.
The CIA and NSA continued reaping the rewards of the earlier labour, however, easily spying on friends and foes alike.
Among others, they listened in on the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis and channelled Argentinian communications to British allies during the Falklands War.
Several times in its history, the clandestine setup was nearly exposed after the government officials with knowledge of the operation — including former US president Ronald Reagan — made careless remarks that almost tipped off rivals.
However, the true extent of the deception had never been fully discovered until now.
Former US intelligence officials who spoke to the Washington Post expressed no remorse about the programme that has been credited with helping their country prevail in the Cold War and keep tabs on unfavourable regimes.
“Do I have any qualms? Zero,” Bobby Ray Inman, a former NSA director and CIA deputy director in the late 1970s and early 1980s, told the US news outlet.
“It was a very valuable source of communications on significantly large parts of the world important to US policymakers.”
Crypto AG was liquidated in 2018 but its products remain in use with over a dozen countries today.
However, its devices have largely been outmoded by modern electronic encryption methods.
The Washington Post report did not detail when Malaysia purchased the devices from Crypto AG or whether these remain in service.